Gary Tetz

Given recent news, award presentations at future long-term care conventions might have a new twist. 

“And now, please put your hands together for our Frontline Caregiver of the Year: Arti3000, a tireless and purpose-driven robot from Sunset Path Senior Living in Doomsville, Illinois.” It will be hard to tell from the announcer’s voice if she’s frightened or excited, which may just mean she’s a robot, too. 

I’m no Nostradamus, but the root of my prediction is the recent report that table-top robots designed for older adults are being tested in senior care communities in New York state. The device is similar to Amazon’s Alexa, and touts an ability to “empathize with humans and respond to voice and body movements.” That’s all I’ve ever asked for in a relationship partner, so if the experiment is successful, I’d like to put my name on the waiting list. 

The pandemic and resulting staffing shortage has brought an explosion of similar technology in long-term care settings, including the Temi personal robots introduced by a Massachusetts-based senior living company to communities in five states. Standing together, they look to me like a street gang of upright vacuum cleaners with glowing, computer tablet faces, and I’d be nervous about running into one in the supply room late at night. But they’re apparently harmless, gliding safely through the halls interacting with residents, facilitating video chats with family and physicians and performing a range of other tasks. 

Meanwhile, over in a Chicago-area continuing care retirement community, a food runner robot busses tables and delivers meals, to the reported delight of seniors, and in California, 200 robotic cats and dogs have been distributed to assisted living residents. It should be noted that none of these news stories include anxious protestations from residents concerned about the machines being controlled by Bill Gates, or running amok and attacking them in their sleep. They seem more accepting of this brave new world than I am, and even to like having robots around.

So could long-term care residents even come to prefer them to actual humans? It’s certainly possible. Because when I compare robot strengths and weaknesses to my own, for instance, I don’t stand up so well. Energy and efficiency? The win goes to robots. Reliability? Robots. Loyalty and honesty? Definitely robots. Expressing feelings and emotion? I’ve been repeatedly told a robot would be far preferable.

In practical situations, they do show some weaknesses. Robots leading facility yoga classes occasionally fall down and have to be picked back up. But in fairness the same thing happens to me whenever I attempt Tree Pose. Robot operating systems occasionally crash, but most afternoons, so do I. My point being that in a head-to-mother-board analysis of traits a resident might value, robots could beat people, or at least me, a lot of the time. 

At an even deeper, more basic level though, I suppose the unexpectedly enthusiastic and rapid embrace of robots by seniors shouldn’t be all that surprising. With all the incivility these days in some quarters, many of us might prefer a polite robot to a typical human. 

Things I Think is written by Gary Tetz, a two-time national Silver Medalist and three-time regional Gold and Silver Medal winner in the Association of Business Press Editors (ASBPE) awards program, as well as an Award of Excellence honoree in the APEX Awards. He’s been amusing, inspiring, informing and sometimes befuddling long-term care readers worldwide since the end of a previous century. He is a writer and video producer for Consonus Healthcare Services in Portland, OR.

The opinions expressed in McKnight’s Long-Term Care News guest submissions are the author’s and are not necessarily those of McKnight’s Long-Term Care News or its editors.